Zhapdrung (ཞབས་དྲུང་) is an honorific title used in Tibet and the Himalaya to refer to an important religious figure. It literally means near or at (དྲུང་) the feet (ཞབས་). The title is a respectful way of referring to an important person without directly pointing the person out but referring to the holy person by pointing the space in his proximity. In Bhutan, the Zhapdrung title came to be used almost exclusively to the Zhapdrung institution started by Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1651), the founder of Bhutan.
Ngakwang Namgyel was born as scion of the Gya family in Ralung, which descended from the line of Tsangpa Gyaré (1161-1211), the pioneer of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition. At around the age of eight, Ngakwang Namgyel was conferred the title of Zhapdrung by the Sakyapa master Sonam Wangpo, perhaps through a ceremony in Ralung monastery. It is quite likely that since then the Zhapdrung title was used to refer to Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel. Around the same time, he was also claimed to be the immediate reincarnation of the Pema Karpo, the eminent saint scholar of Drukpa Kagyu school and thereby of Tsangpa Gyaré, the founder of the school. However, some students of Pema Karpo supported a rival candidate, who got endorsement from the Tsangpa King, the ruler of Tibet at that time.
By the time Zhapdrung turned 23 in 1616, the disagreement between the Tibetan King and Zhapdrung was on the verge of erupting into an open conflict and Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel had to flee into exile. He journeyed to what is today Bhutan carrying with him the holiest relic of the Drukpa Kagyu school. While Zhapdrung was residing in Bhutan, the Tsangpa ruler sent armies to retrieve the relic but the invasions were successfully repelled by Zhapdrung’s Bhutanese supporters. Eventually, as Tibet was enveloped in political turmoil triggered by sectarian strife, Zhapdrung decided to settle in Bhutan. He and his men gradually unified the valleys with the vision of creating a state to support the Drukpa Kagyu tradition.
To continue his socio-political legacy, he also planned a hereditary line of succession, Thus, he produced a son in 1631, after which he became a fully ordained monk to carry out his spiritual duties. After repelling successive Tibetan invasions and building Punakha dzong as the headquarters of his spiritual and temporal rule, Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel formed a system of government in which the Zhapdrung took the mantle of a supreme hierarch and head of state supported by the Desi, who ran the secular affairs and the Je Khenpo who carried out the ecclesiastical duties. Zhapdrung’s family, known as the tse (རྩེ་) or apex, was treated like a royal family and power was to be passed down through a divine succession as it was in Ralung. The government, run mostly by monastics who were close disciples of Zhapdrung, was housed in the dzongs which are monasteries fortified to withstand external invasions.
Although Zhapdrung envisaged a hereditary institution to rule the new state of Bhutan, his plans for hereditary succession began to falter as soon as it was launched. At the age of eight, Zhapdrung’s son Jampel Dorjé was affected by an illness which seems to have caused him some serious disabilities. Thus, by the time Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel passed away in 1651, the new state of Bhutan was left without a capable heir from Zhapdrung to take the reins. Given this internal insecurity and the constant threat from local dissidents and Tibet, his death was kept a secret. While claiming that Zhapdrung was in long strict retreat, his inner coterie aimed to have a male heir, first from the disabled Jampel Dorjé, and after his death, from Tenzin Rapgyé, a cousin of Zhapdrung who served as the fourth Desi of Bhutan. In a tense and uncertain political climate of the time, the state created the post of Gyaltshab or regent, which the British later called Dharmarāja, as an interim measure to fulfill the role of the head of state.
As wishes to have a male heir from these scions of Ralung failed to materialize and people also began to suspect the hoax of Zhapdrung’s long retreat, some Bhutanese leaders clandestinely took up the option of finding Zhapdrung’s spiritual heir in the form of reincarnation. A reincarnation was already identified in the Tibetan territory of Goyul in Tibet but it was not possible to bring him to Bhutan as the two countries were at the height of hostilities. Another was found in Bhutan, born in 1689 and he was brought to Punakha and became a leading religious figure but was later classed as incarnation of Zhapdrung’s son and not of the founder himself. In 1708, this incarnation formally proclaimed the demise of Zhapdrung and when he opened Zhapdrung’s remains three rays of light are said to have emitted heralding three incarnations.
Whatever the case was, the proclamation of Zhapdrung’s death opened the floodgate of candidates who claimed to be incarnations of Zhapdrung. This led to the two lines of the mind and speech incarnations. A line was also traced to the son of Zhapdrung and another line to his cousin, Tenzin Rapgyé. These incarnations filled the position of the Gayltshab in the following centuries until Bhutan adopted the current monarchy in 1907. The two lines of mind and speech incarnations came to be seen as Zhapdrung and carried on the institutional role of Zhapdrung. Until the early 20th century, they were seen as heads of state although they rarely exercised any political influence. They continued to be the supreme religious hierarch until towards the end of the 20th century.
Today, the Zhapdrung institution is no longer active although there are a couple young lamas considered to be incarnations of Zhapdrung. The Zhapdrung institution continues in the Bhutanese religious consciousness as supreme patriarch of the state religious tradition, Drukpa Kagyu, and as the founder of the country. Yet, the role of the institution as a political head of the country has almost disappeared from people’s memory.